Chris Manning normally went surfboard fishing in the early morning with the other regulars — Roy and Vicky, Steve, Russell, and the other Roy. But with the ocean as flat as a lake and the water at 70 degrees, he headed out one warm September evening last year. Walking from his house in North Pacific Beach, Manning carried a soft-top surfboard, a backpack containing his rod and reel and, in his unlimited optimism, a large fishing net. This evening that net would come in handy.
Since the waves were almost nonexistent, Manning easily launched his board from the beach at Tourmaline. He wasn’t interested in catching the common calico bass, although it makes the best fish tacos. He was hunting for big halibut, which stay close to the shore, just outside the surf break. Catching any fish on a surfboard is a blast, but halibut are in a league of their own. Not only are they big and flat, making them hard to bring up off the ocean floor, but they have large teeth and are smart. If you let a halibut stick even a bit of its nose from the water before it’s in your net, it will flick off your lure and be gone in a second. It takes skill to land a small halibut; the big ones can be downright scary to handle while balancing on a surfboard.
In 1999, the California legislature passed the Marine Life Protection Act. This directed the Department of Fish and Game to review and redesign the state’s marine protected areas. The secretary of state appointed a Blue Ribbon Task Force to review proposals for the South Coast Study Region and recommend changes to the Fish and Game Commission. The La Jolla Cove is an example of a local marine protected area. “Saving the fish” is a nice idea, and it gives people a warm, green feeling.
The commission has declared about 16 percent of California’s coastline a marine protected area. There are three types of protected areas: open for both commercial and sport fishing, open for sport fishing only, and closed for any kind of fishing, including spearfishing. Tourmaline Surfing Park has been included in the South La Jolla State Marine Reserve and will be closed for any kind of fishing.
As Manning took his first cast, using a rubber Halloween-colored fish-trap lure, the fog began to roll in from the west. After a couple of hot days, the natural air-conditioning effect at the beach kicks in. Now he was alone on his board in the fog, with visibility less than 20 feet, an eerie feeling.
The best part of ocean fishing — something that freshwater fishing doesn’t offer — is that you can never be sure what you have caught and is now swimming under you. Thousands of fish and other creatures abound in the oceans. This adds more thrill when you first feel that tug on your line. However, surfboard fishermen can usually guess from the way the line pulls what kind of fish they have caught.
Manning didn’t paddle out to the kelp beds, about a half-mile offshore, but instead he stayed closer to the beach. He caught a few small calico bass, a two-foot barracuda, a couple of small mackerel, and an ugly fish called a lingcod. The best reason for using a rubber fish trap is that you don’t catch the “garbage” fish, like stingrays and shovelhead and leopard sharks. These bite only on real bait such as anchovy or squid.
Most fishermen in California think the Marine Life Protection Act process was flawed. The South Coast Study Region extends from Point Conception in Santa Barbara County to the Mexican border. One person on the region’s five-member Blue Ribbon Task Force works for the Western States Petroleum Association, and two members work for companies associated with marinas. Some people believe that the task force’s goal was to avoid talking about the real problems we have in the ocean, such as pollution caused by street runoff and commercial trawlers dragging the seabed floor with their huge nets just outside the three-mile limit. The task force wanted Californians to think that because of the new marine preserves, everything is just fine in the ocean, so we don’t have to worry about the fish anymore.
Manning, like other surfboard fishermen at Tourmaline, is upset that beginning January 1, his local fishing grounds will become a state marine reserve, and all fishing, even from the shore or from a surfboard, will become illegal. Fishermen don’t understand why the commissioners could not ban commercial fishing and leave the solitary fisherman alone. At the very least, if you can get out to the kelp beds without using a motor, you should be able to fish. Locals at Tourmaline don’t mind strict regulations for taking fish, even though they know the limited number they take has no real impact. The Marine Life Protection Act did not require fish counts in order to establish a baseline, so it will be impossible to know if the state marine reserve is doing any good. The locals believe the fishing area off Tourmaline is healthy; in fact, they think it’s in better shape now than anyone can ever remember.
Actually, Manning is less angry than his fellow fishermen. “I’ve been in many parts of the world where the ocean is completely fished out,” he says. “We’ve always been conscientious fishermen and only take legal fish. Of course, I’m not happy about the closing of my particular fishing grounds, but I will drive my car to a legal fishing area if it will help keep our ocean healthy.”
The best way to catch a halibut is to lightly bounce your lure along the ocean bottom. Halibut dart upward when they see the lure. They sort of inhale the lure, like they would a small fish, and the moment the fisherman feels that, he has to give a sharp pull. Manning felt that light tug on the line and gave a tremendous pull upward on his rod. Right away he knew he had a big one from the gigantic tug directly downward. He had it hooked solidly.
The fish started swimming away. Halibut have a unique swimming motion. They move forward by undulating their body up and down. It gives a distinctive feel on the rod. As the halibut swam, it pulled Manning right along. Being pulled on a surfboard by a big fish is just plain fun. Because of the fog, Manning had no idea where he was heading — alongside the beach or toward Hawaii. After about 20 minutes he realized that he was in the kelp beds, almost half a mile from the shore.
It’s obvious that those involved with implementing the Marine Life Protection Act never thought about the little guy. Trying to find out exactly where you can and can’t fish is difficult unless you have a GPS system. From a close look at maps and satellite pictures, it appears that our boundaries are from Diamond Street (at the Pacific Terrace Hotel) to Palomar Avenue in Bird Rock. No taking of any fish, not even fishing from the shore, will be allowed here.
After playing the fish — letting it run, then bringing it back in — Manning knew that the halibut was tiring. Then he got his first look at the biggest fish he had ever caught. It was huge, almost half the length of his surfboard, and when it came up underneath him, he had no idea how to get it into his net, let alone back to shore.
Halibut can easily shake loose a fish-trap hook. Manning had experience with halibut and knew to take his time, never letting the fish get his nose out of the water. He tried to scoop up the fish, but it kept getting away, gaining strength each time it saw the net. Finally, after half an hour, when both fish and fisherman were exhausted, a simple flick of Manning’s wrist and he had it. Manning held the wriggling fish over his head in the net, wondering what to do next.
After the fish settled down, Manning could think of only one way to get the fish and himself back to shore. He put the fish on his board, still in the net, lay down on top of it, and began the long paddle back. The fish squirmed and occasionally tried to escape, but Manning stayed on top of it, paddling when he could, until out of the fog the shore appeared. The fish was tired, not yet dead, but the fight had gone out of him. Manning was excited. He couldn’t wait to show the people on the beach his tremendous catch. It took another 30 minutes to get his feet on the sand. Fortunately, the surf was nonexistent, and it was easy for him to land the fish and get out of the ocean.
By then he’d been in the water almost an hour and a half. It was dark and not a soul was on the beach. He dragged the fish to the parking lot, which was empty. So he took the fish home and put it on ice. Then in the morning he brought it back to the Tourmaline parking lot to display the largest halibut anyone had ever seen caught at our beach, let alone from a surfboard. It weighed 21 pounds and was just over 38 inches long.
Because the new marine protected areas affect commercial sport fishermen and commercial lobster fishermen, Coastside Fishing Club along with United Anglers of Southern California and Robert C. Fletcher have filed a lawsuit in San Diego Superior Court to fight the Marine Life Protection Act. Arguments concerning regulations affecting the North Central Coast region are scheduled to be heard this week; a hearing on South Coast regulations is not yet scheduled.
Earlier this month, the state Office of Administrative Law disapproved implementation of the new regulations in the south coast region, and the start date was pushed from October 1 to January 1, 2012, while problems are resolved. After that date, all fishermen — commercial, kayak, surfboard, whatever — who wish to fish near La Jolla will be crowded into a small section of ocean between the new preserve and the La Jolla Cove preserve. Because no baseline of fish counts was established, it is assumed that the intent is for these preserves to last forever, regardless of the health of the environment. Never again will Manning be able to walk from his home to his beach and enjoy a few hours of surfboard fishing.